April 2006

Arts & Letters

Truth, lies, madness

By Peter Craven
MJ Hyland’s ‘Carry Me Down’

Maria Hyland came to prominence a couple of years ago with How the Light Gets In, the mesmerising story of a Bad Girl who is always proving herself more right than her betters. And if there’s any kind of Achilles heel in this bright and blistering talent it is along the lines of the fact that the narrator is always right. The heroine is a teenage girl who is sent on exchange to an apparently decent middle-class family in America, but who soon finds herself up against all sorts of obtusenesses and depravities. It doesn’t help that she’s one of those I-will-not types who flies in the face of every possible conformism, reasonable or unreasonable.

The trouble with How the Light Gets In is that it is a kind of Bell Jar for budgerigars. The heroine is one of those egotistical sublimities who is forever asserting herself as the alpha and omega of human sensitivity. This would be all right if, like Proust’s Marcel and Stephen Dedalus and the Helen Garner character in Helen Garner’s books, she were the object of some irony on the part of the controlling narrative intelligence of the novel, but she isn’t.

It’s hard not to see the heroine of How the Light Gets In as having her fullest existence in the glow of the author’s admiration, which the reader is encouraged to share with some wholeheartedness. Does this matter? Do we have any right to have reservations about a writer who tingles with energies, linguistic and emotional, just because we happen to think that her central character is a prat, if not a hysterical brat? How about Sylvia Plath, with her ever-ready masochism and exaltation? What about DH Lawrence, with his ranting and sexual mysticism and incessant judgmentalism? They’re hardly negligible writers simply because their art shrieks from the prison-house of their personal flaws. Still, whatever their high and mighty virtues might be, it’s difficult with this kind of writer, engaged with the prophecy of selfhood, to separate the art and the personality that tends to form its subject.

And with Maria Hyland there have also been the advertisements for the self, the autobiographical essays about her dysfunctional family – all the sordor and madness and mayhem she escaped – that she writes with an extremity of detachment that can be a bit disconcerting in itself. After all, there are forms of truth-telling that provoke a kind of disbelief not at the facts per se but in the motives of the person who parades them.

Hyland has a perfect right to exhibit her privacies in essays about her childhood, just as she has a perfect right to use them as whatever modified basis for any novels she may write. The difficulty is that she seems very energised by the songs of the self she sings and very inclined to objectify and distance the characters, real and imagined, who exist outside the orbit of her lyrical solipsism. This gives her work a hot kind of intimacy, but it makes you wonder about her perspective on any world exterior to her headful of imaginings. The upshot is that her writing is on a razor’s edge between authenticity and its opposite. It’s warm and moist and exciting, it’s like being in the embrace of a vibrantly impassioned person; it’s just that you’re never quite sure if what’s animating her is real or simulated. Or – to extrapolate to the realm of fiction – whether the feeling in her work is genuine or phoney.

All of which brings us to her new book Carry Me Down, which the publishers, Australian and foreign, have taken the unusual step of hailing, in advance, as “great”. They have also elicited a blurb from JM Coetzee to the effect that this is “writing of the highest order”. It is certainly writing of some power. Hyland writes with great slashes of colour and with a kind of oracular intensity that brings the reader up so close that you can see the breath of excitement or anxiety as it puffs out of the boy hero in the cold Irish air.

Carry Me Down works on the mind rather like a drug, some fantasticated psychotropic, that carries the adult mind back down, through the rabbit hole, to the world of very early adolescence where everything is a potential humiliation or excitement and the body is a strange sensual machine in which the soul wanders alone and bewildered. It’s a sweaty compulsion of a book with a mucked-around magic that is real but that is nevertheless mixed up with elements that can seem maudlin and meretricious.

The novel is set in the Ireland of the author’s early childhood in the 1970s. (She was born there in 1968 and came to Australia with her parents as a child.) The place is County Wexford; the hero and narrator is an eleven-year-old boy who is exceedingly tall and who is obsessed by the Guinness Book of Records and great magicians such as Houdini. He lives with his parents and his grandmother in a house she owns. His dad is a ne’er-do-well who aspires to pass the Trinity College entrance examination; his mum is a decent, sensitive soul who does her best to cope with the lunacy around her; and grandma is a bit of a gargoyle – people often are in Hyland’s writing – who likes to eat revoltingly runny eggs and who is living on the proceeds of her late husband’s jewellery shop, which the narrator’s father sees as his inheritance.

He has a quiet, agonising time at school. There’s his mate Brendan with whom he spends a night, though he cannot bring himself to ask for physical comfort from him. There’s the girl who mocks our hero when he wets his pants one day and who, in turn, gets hers at the hands of the posh-voiced teacher who comes from Dublin and who befriends the narrator. And it’s here that what’s haywire about Hyland’s work starts to get striking. She is very good at fragmenting the consciousness of her youthful hero and then reconfiguring it as form of panting and pimply dramatic poetry. Much of this engrossing and energising monster of a bildungsroman is written as if to the text of Samuel Beckett’s remark that we are all born mad, and some of us remain that way.

Maria Hyland can ring some wonderful changes on the familiar paradox of the teenage ugly duckling whose beauty is all tied up with the perception of his own ugliness. Hyland’s talent and her power of realisation are manifest and moving. The trouble comes with her symbolism, which, in turn, is a subset of her realism or, rather, of her failure to achieve any consistent flexible narrative manner that will bring the two together.

The first difficulty is that her hero is a bit troppo by any standards; as JM Coetzee notes, “close to madness”. The second difficulty is that so is everyone else in Carry Me Down. Take the posh new schoolteacher. His punishment of the girl who torments the hero is a besotted piece of sadism that is fun to read but which belongs to the realm of wish fulfilment. It’s impossible to believe that this could happen, except within the sphere of the hero’s revenge fantasies, yet nothing in the narrative allows us to think it is anything other than ‘real’. And so it is with much that is lurid and melodramatic in Carry Me Down. Kittens are plunged into hot water with brutalistic concomitant dialogue and someone is subjected to a smothering pillow, according to no reasonable dramatic logic.

The hero has as his central, self-defining belief that he knows when people are telling the truth and when they are not, that he is a human lie detector. This is his abiding mythology and Hyland does various weird and wonderful things with it. However, it’s hard not to see this conceit as symbolic of Carry Me Down as a whole. This is a bright and powerful piece of writing which is, for all that, radically incoherent. It is written in a style of supple realism and yet it includes elements that are absurdist or fantastical without Hyland being able to integrate them into the logic of the book, except (pace realism) as a form of diagnostic, as a clinical datum.

The hero of Carry Me Down is no more meant to be mad than Vladimir or Estragon, or Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children. He seems so disturbed to Coetzee, and no doubt to many other sensitive readers, for the simple reason that Hyland has not found a form that can incorporate her own visionary elements. Carry Me Down strains credulity because the realism that is its fundamental idiom and underlying epistemology is not in kilter with the writer’s view of the world. In the end it’s Maria Hyland who sees herself as a human lie detector, and it’s Hyland who partly falsifies her own effects by muddying the waters because she does not know how ‘meta’ she wants her fiction to be. She puts herself in the position of Tweedledum, who said that when he used a word it meant whatever he wanted it to mean.

It’s fine for a novelist to say lies are the only truths; in one way that’s a truism for a fiction writer. But what Hyland implies is more like ‘madness is the only truth’ and ‘we’re all mad anyway’, in a world that is nonetheless evoked by traditional means and that is, in any case, constantly returning to the opposite kind of standard. In fact, all the characters in Carry Me Down are formalistically schizophrenic because they oscillate between familiar common sense and a realm of symbols for which the author has no evolved language.

Carry Me Down is a bit like Shameless, the TV series about dysfunctional life in an English housing estate, except that Shameless is much more fluent and flexible about its different registers, as well as rather more sane and communitarian under the dreck and pillage of its surface. There are times when, out of pure incoherence, Hyland seems to gesture towards that dreaded thing, middlebrow magic realism. She should brood a bit about just what conventions, realist and other, would best translate the authenticity of her vision. She needs to realise that a ‘lie detector’ is precisely what a writer needs if she is to juggle with the different ways of shaping fiction that are, in the end, different ways of presenting a vision of truth.

But let’s not be captious about this. Carry Me Down, whatever its bright confusions, is a novel that will command the world’s attention. Never mind the leprechauns in leotards and the lies they tell.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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